Brother from another motherland

Today is Vitou’s birthday! Our friendship goes back for more than five years and has been a really important and central part to my time here in Cambodia. He is a pretty amazing guy, so I thought I would give you a picture of how great he is and tell some of the stories of our friendship.

We first met outside a cafe called Jars of Clay, in the south of the city. That particular restaurant isn’t there due to COVID (but they have another site which is still running). He was a tuk tuk driver there. What I am going to say I mean literally: he was a godsend. If it wasn’t for Vitou, I think my arrival in Cambodia would have been extremely difficult. However, whenever I needed to find somewhere or something, I would ask Vitou. Two examples of how it would have been if I hadn’t found Vitou were etched on my mind.

The first is the attempt to find the office of the organisation I work with. I was, at that point, down some back alley in a confusing part of the city. I had a pin of the office’s location, however, the Google maps for Phnom Penh at that point was not particularly accurate (it has improved a little). It did not reflect the layout of the smaller side streets where the office was. However, I did not know this. So I tried to go there for a lunch that had been organised for a member of staff. It was close to where I was so I decided I could walk. It was in the middle of the day so that was a really stupid idea in the first place. But when it became apparent that I would not find the office and I could not find any shade in the heat, I realised the stupidity of the plan. My hands were so sweaty, I could no longer use my phone as I was just smearing the screen and my taps were not being registered. I had to flag a tuk tuk driver down to take me home before I passed out. After that, I had Vitou take me to the office. He phoned up the Khmer admin assistant that worked there, got the directions and we found it. (It was also reassuring that even after this, he still found it difficult to find it the first time and had to make a number of calls.) Every time I needed to go to the office, I would have to ask Vitou. To this day, I could still not tell you where it was, despite having been there a number of times.

Every year around September or October there is a festival called Pchum Ben, and during this time, Phnom Penh empties. Everyone goes to visit family in the provinces. This included Vitou. He was away for about three days, and during that time my life was so much harder. I was taken to the wrong locations at least twice, once on the complete opposite side of the city: I wanted to go to the south-west of the city and I was taken to the north-east of the city. Without Vitou, I imagine my first few months in Cambodia could have been a bit like that. Tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh were very geared to take foreigners to tourist places, but sometimes struggled with helping foreigners with normal day-to-day living. Vitou’s English is very good (despite what he says to the contrary) and any task was made 100 times easier with him around.

He was also really protective of me during those first few months. He made sure I was okay in most situations. In Khmer culture, you call your friends older brother/younger brother depending on their age. Although I’m 9 months older than Vitou, I still call him older brother because of the way he looked after me during that time. One funny aspect of our relationship that has changed is that he refused to take me to places where Khmer people would normally eat. He was worried I’d fall ill. So, whenever I asked to go somewhere Cambodian, he would just stop outside a restaurant for foreigners and suggest I eat there. Some of my best memories during my first few months involve Vitou (including the incident where I nearly got a Cambodian girlfriend).

I moved to Siem Reap, but we still managed to maintain our friendship. This included going to his sister’s wedding in the province, which was a massive cultural experience. (It also included the bathroom incident in Savanna Mall). One of my favourite memories of the wedding was how Vitou’s two boys decided they liked me. They couldn’t speak any English then and I could barely speak Khmer. The way we communicated was the fist bump from Big Hero 6: they’d come up to me, give me a fist bump and I would do the “Balalalala” and they’d fall into hysterics.

Dressed up for a wedding.

Whenever I had to go to Phnom Penh during that time, he would be the first to know. He would pick me up and drop me off at the bus terminal, take me to where I needed to be and look after me. I even stayed at his family’s house a few times whilst I was here.

When my parents came to visit me in 2017, Vitou was the one that took us around. There was a few days when they were in Phnom Penh on their own and Vitou was their guide. He even introduced them to my aforementioned Cambodian not-girlfriend.

Vitou looking cool at Angkor Wat

During April is Khmer New Year. Vitou came to Siem Reap and stayed with me. We saw the temples at sunrise and enjoyed the festivities in Siem Reap together. It was really great having him with me. He said he was really scared to come to a city he didn’t know, but after a few days, he knew his way around it better than I did. (Vitou has an extremely good memory for places and routes and numbers, which is a very good thing for a tuk tuk driver.)

When I left Cambodia in 2017, not sure if or when I would be coming back, saying goodbye to Vitou was really hard. He gave me a photo of us at Angkor Wat to take home. (Funnily enough, a few years later a Chinese student that was staying at my parents’ house for Christmas asked if that was a photo of me and my twin.)

But I did return! I was really excited to see Vitou and his family again. I can remember arriving back in Phnom Penh and feeling like I was returning home. However, I quickly became frustrated. Previously, all my experience of Phnom Penh had been in the south: all the places I knew, all the memories were a 30-45 minute drive away. I felt like I was starting again in some ways. Little did I know that Vitou, his family and all his in-laws lived within a 10 minute drive of where I was living. Furthermore, his church (that his brother-in-law is the pastor of) was 3 minutes down the road.

This also meant that when his baby girl was born, I met her the very next day! So, over the last few years, I’ve been able to see her grow up.

I asked Vitou to give me some Khmer lessons and other days I gave him English lessons. With going to the same church, I probably saw him 4 days a week. Of course, when I had to be somewhere, he was the man I asked. He also installed my washing machine and helped me move any furniture and just generally looked after me. I remember him turning up to my door at 6:30 am to give me a birthday cake. We also went to Mondulkiri on holiday together, and this was one of my favourite holiday experiences ever. It was just easy and relaxing.

Vitou’s housing situation was getting a little bit crowded. In one house there were seven adults and five children, including two children under two. I could tell this situation was a bit difficult for everyone, which is understandable. So, I suggested the idea that we move in together. I would rent a whole house (which was relatively cheap), and Vitou and his family would provide me with free language and culture lessons and meals in return. It was also really helpful for my relationship with Kristi. In Khmer culture it would have been very inappropriate to invite Kristi over when I lived alone. However, living with a family provided an excuse. It was also great because Kristi got to experience the joy and blessing of knowing Vitou’s family like I did. (In fact, before Kristi knew them she thought I was a little too over-the-top in how I expressed how great they were. Once she got to know them, she realised I had actually be rather reserved about it.)

I loved living in that house with them. I loved seeing the children each day, and spending time with the family in the evenings, eating meals together. I learnt so much about Cambodian culture and about myself. That time also confirmed how generous, patient, kind, forgiving, caring and accepting Vitou and his family are. Anything that needed doing, any help I needed, Vitou was there for me. Bed bugs, illnesses, the death of my granddad, Vitou always was at my side. When it was my granddad’s funeral, which I had to watch online, Vitou stayed up and watched it with me so I wouldn’t feel alone. He always went out of his way to make sure that everything was good for me.

I previously had a suspicion that Vitou actually has superpowers but one incident confirmed it for me. Our house had a rat problem (as does a lot of houses here in Phnom Penh). I spotted one in the kitchen one evening. Vitou grabbed an oven glove, crouched by the fridge and waited. When the rat ran out, he grabbed it and knocked it against the wall. I did have to point out it wasn’t dead yet, so he just gave it another quick bash and the job was done. It was probably (compared to other methods I’ve used) a very humane way to dispatch of it. The fact that he did it with nothing but an oven glove amazed me.

One benefit of me paying the rent was that Vitou was able to start putting money towards building his own house. An unexpected consequence of COVID-19 was that a lot of builders were struggling for work, so he was able to start on it and finish it a lot sooner than we expected. My original plan was that he would get his house and I would find somewhere else to live. That was until he announced to me one day, “I have decided that you live with us.” So that was that.

I went to the UK for four months and we spoke most weeks. When I came back, I moved into Vitou’s new house. I love Vitou’s house and his family has that innate ability of making anyone that comes feel comfortable and welcome. We even had a few parties there (COVID-19 permitting) and inviting people to the house was easy.

Then, something crazy happened: I got engaged and then married within the space of about 5 months. This meant that I had to find a new house and prepare for the wedding. Who, of course, did I call on to help? My Cambodian brother, Vitou. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a new house. With Vitou’s help, we found the perfect house for us (with air con and washing machine to boot). Every time I needed to buy some new things for the house, Vitou was there helping us barter prices, or agree arrangements or stick it on the top of his tuk tuk (or in the back of his brother-in-law’s truck).

My wedding suit, our three-piece living room suit, our crockery cabinet, the crockery, all came about with Vitou’s help.

The online wedding (with 5 guests!) The actual main ceremony was 2 weeks later.

Of course, when it came to asking someone to be my best man at my wedding, who was I going to ask? Vitou! However, disaster struck. Sadly, Vitou came into contact with someone with COVID-19. He had to self isolate. It was a big disappointment for us both. Fortunately, he was able to isolate away from his family, so they all made it to the wedding.

Now, and throughout my time here in Cambodia, Vitou has been a source of encouragement, wisdom and advice. He has gently guided me through Khmer culture and introduced me to different parts of the country, events and celebrations. He’s allowed me to sit back and observe or participate as much as I wanted. He’s been patient when my British culture manifested at inappropriate moments and gently answered questions or corrected my misunderstanding. I’m very fortunate to have found a brother like Vitou here in Cambodia. So, have a very happy birthday.

Cambodia Online

A lot of life now takes place online, especially so after the pandemic. And that means multiple social-media accounts and detailing your life on Facebook. Some people will just happily post a status and engage in a care-free manner. But why do that when you can overthink everything?

I think very carefully about my posts and what I put up and what I don’t. (I’m not always happy with what goes up even after that.) I have thousands of photographs and videos of Cambodia on my camera reel but most of those never see the light of social media. This is because I am very aware of what it can portray and the messages that I’m giving out.

White saviour

I try very hard not to come across as the white saviour. Therefore, I can be reluctant to discuss negative experiences and also to portray what I do as anything incredible. (It really isn’t. I am not winning any prizes anytime soon.) It is also something that I have to really battle with personally. I could write a whole book about this and why I still do what I do and what I hope is achieved (note, not what I achieve) through the redistribution of experience and education. There are also very long books that have already been written that define poverty, but this is not the place to go into that.

To put it succinctly, I am not special, clever or a hero. The only difference is that I, through my birth, had been dealt a set of cards that gave me access to more opportunities. I know many Cambodians who, given the same opportunities that I have, would have got firsts at Oxford or been Hollywood movie stars or something amazing. And yet they did not have those opportunities. Two of the opportunities that I have had is easy access to higher education and the ability to speak fluently in English, both of which have currency. Teaching English is a relatively easy (although arguably not the most effective) way to redistribute some of this currency. (That is a very poor way to explain it, but there you go.)

Therefore, I don’t like to post photos up of me actually doing things. First of all, most English teachers will not put photos up of their job because it is, let’s be honest, rather dull. You won’t really see a tweet or instagram post saying “Here is my board of future continuous sentence examples! #teacherlife #adrenalinejunkie”. Secondly, it’s really hard not to do that and make yourself the hero of that story. Not all heroes wear capes. But often, those who don’t wear capes aren’t heroes.

White person’s playground

South East Asia is not a playground for white people. It’s not a place for us to go and party, try drugs, do adventure sports, have spiritual experiences and find ourselves. So, I’m not really up for posed photos on Angkor Wat or markets or villages. These are people’s countries and homes and lives. They are not to be objectified and made into curios for our consumption. There are times when I do, indeed, take photos of people living their normal life. And it often doesn’t sit easy with me. But I will try and do it in a way where some sort of judgment isn’t implied. Unfortunately, when anyone takes anyone’s photograph and posts it to social media (especially without permission), there is always an imbalance of power. There has to be a sensitivity to that.

Poverty porn

Before you get too upset by the use of the word porn, it’s actually a technical term. I used it class with some grade 8s when discussing this issue. However, while many focus on its use in the charity sector. My argument is that you are reducing someone’s humanity and whole existence to just their experience of poverty, you’re creating poverty porn. It’s deeply patronising and unfair. Furthermore, the narrative about Cambodia is generally just genocide and terrible poverty. The narrative of Cambodia and the lives of individual Cambodians are so much richer, bolder, nuanced, tragic, joyful, deeper than any photograph of them in poverty could ever show. My social media feed is by no means just affluent Phnom Penh, but I try to either have a balance or do it in a way that avoids judgement.

This also goes for phrases such as “They’re so poor yet they’re so happy.” It’s demeaning and again reduces their live to a romanticised view of the situation they are in. Their stories, their lives, their experiences are not yours to tell or to interpret on their behalf. If you want to write or convey something, use their words and attribute it to them. They don’t need some white person going around narrating their lives when they know next to nothing about it. Furthermore, if you’re making their poverty the defining feature of their lives, once again, you’re reducing them and their lived experiences to just one rather demeaning word. And yes, they may seem happy in front of you, a complete stranger. But what about the times you are not there? Even if you were trying to be humble and think about it from the perspective of learning to be grateful, that’s still bad. Only you benefit from that experience. Their situation doesn’t change. They’re still poor. You just feel better about your life and wealth and comfort and are more thankful for what you have. You’ve used their lives to make you feel good about yours.

Questions to ask yourself

Obviously, I try to think long and hard about what I put on social media and on the internet. It is sometimes the reason I don’t blog as much as I would like. I often have mixed feelings about what I do write. I also am aware that often, it’s not my story to tell. However, here are some ideas about how you can be critically reflexive about what you post.

  1. Who benefits from this image/post?
  2. If the person in the picture or a Cambodian person in general was to see what you posted, how would they feel?
  3. What narrative does this post tell about the subject/Cambodia?
  4. What narrative does this post tell about you?
  5. Am I reinforcing or perpetuating harmful or shameful stereotypes and narratives?
  6. Is there an imbalance of power? Can it be addressed?

Other posts I wrote

  • Answers to questions… where I discuss ideas about voluntourism, and why I never post photos of children (unless I have the parents’ permission or using natural censorship (i.e. they are facing away from me or obscured by an object).
  • A single story of Cambodia reflects on an amazing TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about how narratives are often reduced.
  • Being a good guest discusses how we should talk about and view a country we call home but isn’t ours.
  • The Mother-in-Law’s hat explains why there are some aspects of Cambodia I will never discuss online.

Why you should become a missionary…

I’ve heard quite a few times that people couldn’t possibly do what I do or that they just aren’t meant to be missionaries. Now, I’m going to ask you, for just a short moment, to ask yourself, “What if I am wrong? What if I am meant to be a missionary?” You’ve probably already listed forty-thousand reasons why you’re not meant to be a missionary and why it’s a stupid thing to even think about. But just let me briefly explain why it could be at least worth considering.

I haven’t been called…

Yes, this is an important one (and somewhat messy and confusing in terms of what it actually means). But the question to this one is how do you know that? If you have got a clear calling for where you are right now, then, yes, you are probably right… for now.

However, if you don’t know without actually knowing, you might just be wrong. One day, my dad was serving turkey and pheasant for my grandparents. My grandmother instantly said she just wanted the turkey because she doesn’t like pheasant. We asked if she had ever tried it, to which she replied “No, I just know I don’t like it.” We all laughed and said that she should at least try a bit. Saying you haven’t been called without considering it is a bit like that. How can you be certain without actually exploring the idea? Exploring the possibility of something then realising it isn’t for you is not wrong. However, closing your mind to the possibility of what God actually has planned for you is disobedience. You’re on a ship to Tarshish, but, unlike Jonah, you don’t actually realise.

I know it can be confusing. It might be because we hear stories of God calling missionaries when they were just out of the womb and were clearly destined to go overseas. Or sometimes, we hear of stories of spectacularly clear and surprising commands to go somewhere particular. However, this is not often the case and it wasn’t for me. I had no inkling that God wanted me to come to Cambodia or even to become a missionary until I asked Him. I had always thought I would be in the UK until I died (except maybe a year in France or somewhere similar just to be extremely middle-class). Then I listened to some missionary speakers and thought, “Oh, maybe I should at least ask God if that’s his plan.” So I prayed and asked. He answered and here I am.

I couldn’t give up what I have

If you’re thinking about your house, car, job and worldly possessions, you’re possibly in for a bit of a shock because of what I am going to say next. You probably shouldn’t become a missionary simply because you might not believe in what the Bible says. Unfortunately, the Bible is very clear that we are not to cling onto worldly things but be willing to offer them for God’s service.

Remember, it was the rich man’s unwillingness to give up everything he had that resulted in Jesus saying it would be difficult for him to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (see Matthew 19:16-24). We often say we are willing to give up everything, but unless you’ve actually asked God if he wants you to, it might just be all talk.

Now, before we go any further, I would like to add that often being a missionary doesn’t mean giving up all home comforts. In fact, my home is amazing. Both the bedrooms have en suite bathrooms; I live near a beautiful lake. I have been able to buy beautiful furniture and accessories. I have a nice motorbike. I have a fridge, air con, washing machine. For many missionaries, the standard of living is very comfortable. So, in your willingness and obedience to offer God what you have, you may find yourself with blessings you did not expect. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I painted a picture that I was a typical missionary martyr. My life is great! God gives us great things to enjoy. But He does not give them to us for us to cling to and squeeze the life out of.

Of course, I do also have the realisation that this might not be forever. I may end up in some remote location, with few amenities and with more difficult conditions. Many missionaries find themselves in these situations. But God is good and faithful even in the midst of harder living conditions.

What about my family?

Leaving family behind can be really hard. Also, the uncertainties of bringing a young family onto the mission field can be complex. This is certainly something, as Kristi and I start our own family, we will have to navigate (but not for a few years yet).

However, God can be trusted with our families. He knows so much better than we do what is good for us and our loved ones. If I didn’t come to Cambodia, I would not have a wife. God knew about my situation and He cared about me having family whilst I was pursuing His call for my life.

Furthermore, a bit after the “camel through the eye of a needle” comment, Jesus makes this statement:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

Matthew 19:29

I know that I may never own a house. I left my brother, nieces and parents in the UK. I’ve never owned any fields, but I did leave a very stable and relatively well-paid career as a teacher. But God has provided me with Cambodian friends that have become as close as brothers, and Cambodian nephews to ease the hurt of not seeing my nieces grow up first-hand. This promise can be relied on.

Trust God with your family and your situation. He is so faithful and so good.

I’ve made other plans/dreams/ambitions

If you’ve become a Christian and you’ve submitted your life to the lordship of Christ, you’ve also submitted your dreams and plans to him. So, quite frankly, it’s not up to you. But, on the plus side, God’s plans for you are so much better than your plans. I’m not saying His plans might not involve suffering and pain, but they are still good.

Even 10 years ago, if you had asked me what my future plans were, I’d have said probably living in the UK, teaching. I’d have a house with a cute garden and my life would look quintessentially English. I’d have never, ever considered Cambodia. But God knew what was best and I love it. If God calls me somewhere else now, I would be utterly heart-broken. However, I’d have to remind myself that God was good enough to give me Cambodia, so whatever was next is a part of His perfect will too.

I’ve got nothing to offer

Every person that God uses in the Bible has very little to actually offer. They are always the youngest in the smallest family of the smallest tribe of Israel. Or they have a speech impediment or some other reason that they should not be God’s immediate choice. Remember King Saul? He was pretty much the tallest and most handsome person in Israel. But he was a rubbish king. Remember Mary however? She was a teenage girl from a remote town in an area where everyone was considered a bit dim-witted. She was a faithful servant of God.

Consider also the widow’s offering at the temple. She gave what she had, even though it was so small. However, Jesus considered this offering the the piles of wealth rich people added. Give what you can, even if you don’t think it is much.

What to do now

  • Pray for faith and trust. Ask God to help you trust Him with your situation, whether that’s finances, family, health, work, etc.
  • Submit and humble yourself. Remind yourself that He is God of the universe. He is well within His rights to ask anything of you. However, remember that He is also a good and generous God. Offer that you have to Him.
  • Ask him. Tell God that you are willing to go wherever or do whatever He asks of you. Ask God if He wants you to become a missionary or go to go somewhere. (I asked God to tell me where to go, and He did.) Let God know you are open to receiving signs and direction in your life.
  • Watch this space. It may that you are not called to be a missionary but instead to support mission in another way, through faithfully praying for a missionary (such as me) or financial supporting a missionary or mission organisation. He may speak to you about how to serve your local church, local area or even other organisations too.
  • Speak to other missionaries! Get in touch with mission organisations or even send me a few messages! I’m happy to help.
  • Act on it but be patient too. Sometimes, the plan that God reveals to you might not be for straight away. However, keep pursuing it, walking faithfully and with the faith that God knows what He is doing.

Why is living abroad so exhausting?

When I first moved to Cambodia, in pre-pandemic days that feel like centuries ago, I wrote a blog post about how exhausting living abroad was. I think it still caused confusion as to exactly why I felt so tired. It’s got better, in that I know how to manage it a bit better and I can push myself a bit further. But a new couple arrived in Cambodia recently and said how tired they were. They asked us to pray that their tiredness would get better. I didn’t want to tell them the truth that you are probably always just as tired, but you are simply more used to it.

There are lots of factors that can leave people more tired than normal. Some days I won’t be as tired but other days, I’ll do a little bit and then just go back to bed for an hour. Also, living abroad affects people differently. Some people don’t even find it exhausting, whereas some people will find some aspects more exhausting than others. It can also change depending on your life-stage, how long you’ve been in the country and how much you wish to integrate with the local culture. However, if you are finding life tiring, these might be some of the reasons.

The climate

Cambodia is hot and humid. So, unless you are sitting in a room with air-conditioning, or is very shaded and breezy, you are probably sweating. Even if you are in front of fan, you are probably loosing fluids (it’s just that the fan is doing it’s job and taking the moisture from your skin into the air, helping you cool down).

This means that any activity can be so much more draining. Yesterday, we were going from one shop to another. They were about 600 metres away from each other. However, it was midday, so there were no shadows being cast. It was very humid and we were already carrying shopping. So, we still had to take a tuk tuk, because we knew it would be too hot to walk. (Later in the day, I was able to walk a similar distance between shops because the sun was lower meaning one side of the road was shady.)

Unpredictable storms, sudden downpours, the dust picking up the wind all make the environment we live in different to what we grew up with and therefore different to what our body is used to. You do adapt a bit, but unless you move overseas when you are very young, it’s unlikely your body will get used to it completely.

Rules of life

Imagine you woke up one day and every rule about life had changed. Everyone knew but you somehow missed the memo. This included

  • Where you buy your shopping
  • What side of the road you drove on
  • Road rules (is it okay to cut corners or drive on the pavement?)
  • How you got to places
  • How you paid your bills
  • What money you used
  • The prices for things (what was cheap is now expensive, what was expensive is now cheap)
  • How you drink your water

These are just the practical elements. Then there are the cultural rules. Often people think learning about culture is just a little, often superficial thing (‘This is how you say hello in this country!’). Imagine if you had to learn the following all over again…

  • When and how to say please and thank you
  • What topics are taboo and what is now okay to talk about
  • Table manners
  • When and what you eat at different times of the day
  • How to give gifts
  • How to extend invites, and whom you should invite
  • How to apologise and make amends
  • When you go to bed
  • When you get up
  • How to negotiate prices
  • How to make a joke
  • When to arrive at scheduled events (which will differ for each type of event)
  • How to pass people you know on the street
  • How to interrupt someone
  • How to give advice
  • How you introduce and talk about yourself

Again, it’s very easy to say, “oh in Cambodia, you barter the price”. First, this is not always the case. There are some things you don’t barter for and some places you wouldn’t barter. You need to learn these rules. Second, how do you barter? Do you offer a different price? Do you simply ask if they can drop the price? Do you say about how the product isn’t as good as one you saw the other day from a different store? Do you simply wait? Do you pretend to lose interest? Do you only barter for each item individually, or do you buy a number of items and see if you can get a good price for them altogether? What is considered a good price for that product? What offer would be demeaning? Do you look serious or do you smile when you do it? Is it okay to check the product and take it out of it’s packaging? What questions should you ask (Where is it from? What if it is faulty? Will you replace it?)? How long should the process go on for?

Culture has rules, and these rules have rules. They have nuance that you should try to be aware of.

It’s not only about trying to operate in your host culture, which is exhausting enough, it’s about trying not to operate in your own culture. British culture has so many more rules about what is taboo and about table manners than Cambodia. For instance, in Cambodia, talking with your mouth full is perfectly fine with friends. Asking the price of a recent purchase is also okay. In British culture, these things are rarely acceptable. And it will grate on you. You will have an instant, visceral reaction to it. There have been so many times when I have had to really struggle against my immediate, innate response to situations. It’s usually when something has been said that if a Brit said it would have been rude or hurtful. The person did not realise that there was implied meanings to their words or actions. It is so hard, especially when you are tired, to switch off the part in your brain saying, “if they said that it means they are angry with you!” Sometimes it’s impossible to do it, and you just need to have a good cry and try to move on.

A simple example is the difference in the American/British version of the phrase, “I don’t care.” In American English it is the same as, “I don’t mind.” In British English, it can hold the connotations of “I don’t think much of this discussion. The topic bores me. Stop asking me questions about this. I’d rather not be here with you anyway.” I know that Kristi has learnt not to say it in front of British people. She said it once to her British friend after she asked “where do you want to go out to eat?” and slightly offended her. She said it to me once, and my immediate reaction was one of shock, but I managed to tell the little voice in my brain she just meant “I don’t mind.” However, doing this constantly can be tiring.

Decision fatigue

There is a reason why routines and cultures exist. They prevent you having to think about every small thing and your brain can just do it on autopilot. However, when you move to a new country, you have to think about everything. (When should I go to the shops or to the market? – First thing while it is cool is the answer. Do I drive to the shop or take a tuk tuk? Etc. Etc.)

It’s now recognised by psychologists that humans have a limited capacity for decisions within a day. We’ve all experienced when we’ve had a hard day and we can’t decide what to have for dinner. It’s like we’ve forgotten what we would normally eat or what we enjoy. We cannot even begin to process the options, let alone decide on one. This is decision fatigue.

The automatic decisions barely make a dent in this capacity, whereas when you have to consciously think about the choice it makes a larger dent. The more you’ve eaten into this decision-making capacity, the more difficult it is to make a good choice. (It’s interestingly why supermarkets have an over-abundance of exactly the same product and why car salespeople offer you all these bizarre added extras to your car. They are trying to diminish your capacity to make a good decision – a good decision for you that is.)

Now, when you arrive in a new country, many of those decisions that were once automatic now have to be conscious. This eats into your ability to make good, healthy, sustainable choices. It’s also hard when a lot of these decision have important consequences. The question “What do I have for dinner today?” in Cambodia can translate to “What’s the quickest route to a week of diarrhoea I have available to me?” When you make the wrong choice, it’s not just that you’re left with a dinner you don’t really fancy; this time you’re left with bilharzia.

Establishing routines that keep you healthy and happy can be a long process too. It also means that we can become reliant on comforts such as cafes and expensive supermarkets. They are familiar and easier, but often not sustainable. It can take a concentrated effort to get a sustainable routine in a world that is so different from what you knew.

Second language

Working in a language that is not your own, until you are fluent and comfortable with it, can be tiring. You not only have to think about words, but grammar, pronunciation and processing lots of information at once. This one gets considerably easier. When I first arrived, my 2-hour lessons were completely draining. Trying to speak Khmer for that length of time was so hard. Now, it’s relatively easy (unless the lesson involves completely new vocabulary or concepts).

What’s funny about this one, is when I have completely drained myself speaking Khmer, I lose my English too. It’s like my brain is just constantly buffering. I become a real-life version of a Zoom call on bad Wifi.

Just having a language barrier can make situations so much more stressful and confusing. Paperwork, any government or official dealings, buying expensive things such as vehicles, renting houses become so much more difficult when you’re trying to do it in a language you barely understand. And even day-to-day interactions have problems, from getting the wrong drink or food given to you at a restaurant to your tuk tuk driver dropping you off at totally the wrong part of the city.

Sensory overload

Have you ever tried to concentrate whilst there has been a flickering light or a crying baby nearby? It’s hard isn’t it. When your different senses are being stimulated, it can be tiring. There is a reason why we have a phrase “an assault on the senses”. It’s because we can feel like we’re being attacked by what is around us.

A new country will have lots of sights and sounds that you have not experienced. This will be tiring. However, even after a few years, you may still experience a wealth of sensory input. For example, a general tuk tuk ride will take you past a lot of sights, sounds and smells that you will be taking in, whether you choose to or not. You will pass a food stall frying garlic one moment, and a heaping pile of stinking garbage the next.

In the West, we have become very good at creating sensory bubbles. We drive in cars, with the music we want to listen to turned up. We have double-glazing and live in detached houses. We have zoning rules (or at least practices) so you don’t get houses next to loud workshops for example. This doesn’t happen in Cambodia. One of the main problems of Phnom Penh is the constant construction that is happening. Even as I write this blog post, my neighbours are building an additional floor to their house. This means there is drilling, and banging and hammering that is happening most of the day, everyday (even the weekends).

Also, Phnom Penh can smell really bad. A lovely combination of a sudden downpour flooding the sewage system followed by a burst of hot sunny weather makes for a very fragrant afternoon. And just the rubbish at the end of the day, the fish markets, the durian, the trash piles, the rubbish being burnt, the charcoal grills being used all make for a heady sensation.

Without double glazing and gaps in the sliding windows, or driving in a open tuk tuk, you’re exposed to all these senses. And it can make you really weary. Noise pollution has been linked to sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, stress and mental health issues.

Other things…

There can be loads of other things that are exhausting, but I have written about elsewhere. There can be cultural or interpersonal conflicts, culture shock, and many more.

What can you do?

If you know those living abroad such as missionaries, there are things you can do to help.

First, don’t expect too much of them. If all they’ve done is gone to a language lesson then spent the rest of the day in bed, it’s probably what they needed to do. Language learning can be so draining.

Pray for them. Pray for energy, wisdom, time management, and that they get used to things.

Chat with them about their stresses and see if there is anything you can do about them. Sometimes, just having a listening ear can make a huge difference.

For the missionary, there are some great books and resources out there. It’s also really important to realise that you are not a martyr and your life is not necessary more difficult than what the people back at home are experiencing. They have their own problems and stresses, they just look different to yours. It may be hard when you feel like they don’t understand your problems, but make sure you’re not guilty of the same thing! You can be as much a listening ear to them as they can be to you.

Loving Cambodia

Many years ago, someone said to me that you haven’t truly settled in a country until you can talk about what is wrong about it. Now, this person has probably forgotten they said this by now. But I remember it because I remember my strong reaction to it. My exact immediate thoughts would be too strong to write here. Fortunately, I managed to hide my feelings somewhat. (I’ve actually written about this incident on the blog already, so 10 stars if you can find out where it’s mentioned before!)

Also, I sometimes find it hard to be around expats. This is because expats like to moan and complain and I hate it. I have actually had to walk away from a group of people because of what they said about Cambodia. Also, I was quite blunt with someone when they said that they didn’t get the sense of recipes being passed down through the centuries when eating Khmer food. I did point out that a genocide may have been a contributing factor. (It’s also really not true; if you actually go to eat nice Khmer food, you’ll realise it’s really nice.)

This frustration around criticising Cambodia is because of a simple reason. God called me to love Cambodia. “Well, you can still love Cambodia and find it hard!” you might cry. This is true. I often find it hard and I will be honest about it. But that, most of the time, it isn’t Cambodia’s fault. It’s just life. And it isn’t an excuse for a critical attitude. It is easy to become cynical and weary, especially when you’re sweaty, hot and tired. But, as I like to say, cynicism is just a Poundland version of wisdom. It’s cheap, easy, and worth very little.

There’s also a very clear Biblical passage on what love is meant to look like. It’s often now used for weddings, but its use was not isolated to just that.

Love is patient with Cambodia and Cambodians; love is kind (in thought, word and deed) to this country.
Love does not become jealous with Cambodians' ease in this country.
Love does not boast about its own customs or country. Love does not think itself better than Cambodia.
Love is not rude to Cambodians. It does not demand that it's own needs, culture and customs be respected above that of the Cambodians.
Love does not keep a record of the wrongs of Cambodia and discuss them endlessly.
Love does not delight in the injustice of global wealth and poverty and rejoice in our own unfair opportunities and privileges.
Love delights when the truth of God's love and justice wins out in this nation.
Love does not give up on Cambodia; love never loses faith in the gospel in Cambodia, is hopeful for transformation, and endures through every circumstance Cambodia throws at it.

Prophecy and speaking Khmer and Mnong and Kraol and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever.
How can you not love a country with sunsets like this?

British phrases #1

I’ve written about British communication styles before. However, the more live here, the more I realise how much of what we say has additional meanings or purposes. The problem is that when used with those from a different culture, especially when English isn’t their first language, those meanings or purposes get lost. I thought I’d start collating them on this blog, just for some fun.

This weeks phrase was “Am I right in thinking that…?” or simply, “is that right?”

British people do use it for clarification and to avoid confusion. However, this phrase has an additional purpose.

Today, I have a meeting with my supervisors. I know that they are particularly busy at the moment with a lot to think about. The meeting had not been mentioned since it’d been arranged and it was one of those things that could easily fall through the gaps.

So I sent a message to one of them saying “I’ve got a meeting written in my diary for tomorrow. Is that right?” Now, I knew with 99.9% certainty that I was right. So why did I ask?

First, it was to check that my supervisor had remembered without accusing him of having forgotten. I knew that he is very efficient and usually remembers these things, but like I said, he has a lot on. He’s only human so he may have forgotten. So, I wanted to gently check that it was still on without causing a fuss.

Second, if he had forgotten and had subsequently double-booked himself, it would give him the opportunity to pretend that I had made the mistake. This isn’t lying, because we’d both be well aware of the actual situation. But, to save him any embarrassment, we would both pretend that I had got myself confused. He could have replied with “Oh, I didn’t think we’d set a date yet” or “Isn’t it next week?” We would then rearrange the meeting and no one would have to admit any real fault and there’d be no unnecessary embarrassment.

Third, if he hadn’t forgotten and it was still on, he could easily reply, “No, that’s correct!” And we’d meet as previously planned.

However, my supervisor isn’t British. I realised afterwards that this additional purpose would have been lost on him and that perhaps I just looked stupid.

Would you have picked up on those additional meanings? (Sometimes it will get lost on Brits too.) Also, I’m interested in native English speakers that aren’t British. Would you have realised what I meant?

The cracks are starting to show…

Missionaries often have a reputation of being holy, serene and really spiritual people. I believed this too when I first started, but I soon realised I was wrong. For those who count themselves as missionaries, what I’m about to say will be no surprise to you. To others, you may have heard this, but do not yet quite believe this. Missionaries are broken, unholy and sinful. I would say, we are just like everyone else. I might go as far to say we are even worse.

Believe it or not, we squabble, get frustrated, offend people, throw petty tantrums (with others and with God). We develop saviour complexes; we go through seasons of being arrogant and believing that God called us because we are special and have the answers. We delude ourselves that God wants us to save the world. We fail in our Bible reading and our prayer life. We can be bad tempered. We try to do too much. We get caught up in ourselves and forget the important things. We continuously gets it wrong while trying to maintain the facades of getting it right, lest we be found out.

However, there is a painful privilege of being a missionary, and that is of the refiner’s fire. When you first arrive in your new country, you are suddenly like a young child. You literally know nothing. You don’t recognise half the things in the shops and markets; everything is unintelligible; even crossing the road becomes a totally different process. Nearly everything you took for granted is gone. Suddenly you are utterly dependent on others and on God.

In the first stage of arrival, praying constantly is easy. “Lord, give me strength and wisdom to go to the market and buy the food that won’t make me sick. Lord, help me understand what is happening.” I have a special travelling prayer: “Lord, keep me safe or make it quick.” Amen.

That stage comes and goes and after a while you become adept at surviving. But God isn’t done with you yet. Throughout the years we experience culture shock, frustrations, unexpected obstacles, leaks, floods, hot season, rats, mosquitoes, ants, bed bugs, power cuts, sickness, trying to survive a pandemic in a country where you don’t understand what is happening, other missionaries, lack of faith of the locals, your own lack of faith, not seeing progress and the fruits of your labour, feeling unappreciated. It can be hard. And the worst part of it is that it reveals to you how sinful you are. I can be short tempered. I can be resentful. I can be nasty. Not a little bit nasty like a frustrated cat; I can be a sly, spiteful, sharp-tongued, serpent spitting venom when I feel cornered. The missionary life (and I am told marriage is the same) is a mirror that shows you for who you really are. It’s also an x-ray machine, exposing what lies beneath the veneer of respectability. Missionaries are nice people, except when we are not. And that turns out to be a lot of the time.

But there’s two things that we can do with this horrifying information. We can become hardened and bitter. We can focus on the problems of other missionaries (because, don’t worry, they’ll have them too). We can establish a martyr complex. We can complain and close our hearts to those around us. This does happen.

The other thing we can do is realise we are in complete and total need of Jesus. His grace and power alone can sustain me. I’m becoming more and more convinced that God didn’t send me here to save the locals. God sent me here to save me from myself.

I’ve downloaded the Church of England’s “time to pray” app, that guides you through the morning and evening prayers found in The Book of Common Prayers. Every day it starts with “O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.” Everyday we need saving. We need saving from our spiteful, supercilious, self-centred, sinful selves. Everyday, we need God’s assurance of salvation and his power to help us.

And my hope is, that eventually, God chips away at me enough, that the cracks grow large enough, the veneer wears down so thin that the love and grace of God in me shines through. I hope that the grace that I cling to and the mercy that upholds me becomes what people see. I don’t want people to say “Thomas is such a holy, serene and spiritual person.” I want people to say, “Thomas is broken and weak; but his God is good.” I want the cracks to start showing my beautiful salvation.

Podcast: Phnom Penh in Lockdown

I have a new project (which will probably be short-lived)! A podcast. I chose this format because I have done videos in the past but trying to do them when you’re not sweaty and gross has been hard. Podcasts are easier as you only have to worry about the microphone and not what you look like.

I had a few problems with getting WordPress to agree to this (it’s still on-going – it decided to change the embed code to a random link). This is about attempt number 6 to get it to publish here, so rather than embed it, just follow the link below!

(Just a note, this was recorded when the COVID-19 cases were somewhat lower than they are now.)

Quarantine: A Day in the Life

Unless you’ve missed my recent posts, facebook updates and instagram pictures, you’re probably aware that I am currently in Cambodia. If you want to know about my somewhat tumultuous return, read here. I’m about halfway through my quarantine. I want to point out that my quarantine experience has not been the same as everyone else’s. I have been very fortunate in the hotel I have ended up at. The food is pretty good and the location is amazing. The room is comfortable and I can’t complain really. So this is a day in the life of someone in a rather comfortable quarantine.


My alarm will go off. Depending on how kind the jet lag was to me and how well I slept, I might get up then. I might hit the snooze button a few times (by a few times, I might mean six times). Then I get ready for breakfast to arrive.


Sometime between those times, I will get a knock on the door and I will receive breakfast. This has been a wide range of things: fried rice, fried noodles, noodle soup, toast, omelette, boiled eggs, fruit. I even got two slices of cake with my breakfast one day! (I had the first slice for morning tea, then the next slice as a reward for not sleeping during the day.)

The time varies, but what can be guaranteed is this. If I’m not showered and ready early, the breakfast will come early and I’ll have to scramble to make myself presentable enough to answer the door. If I am up bright and early, I will have to wait for my breakfast.

Somewhen after breakfast, a little bag of coffee sachets, tea bags, bin liners and bottles of water will be hung on our door handles. It’s like waiting to open the gifts in your Christmas stockings.

I will probably chat with Kristi some point before the next part of the day at ten.

Wednesday’s food. I got cake!


I have to go to the hotel lobby, with my mask on, for temperature checks. It’s quite good that we can actually wonder the hotel during the day. The lobby has a little shop, with snacks, a little coffee bar and wine. Usually I will take the ten flights of stairs down and up for a little bit of exercise.

10:00 – 12:00

Lunch will arrive. Again, there will be a knock on the door and the calls of “Hey-lo! Hey-lo!” You take your food and sign the clipboard. Lunch is usually quite substantial. Normally, there is a lot of rice. Then there are three dishes, often one being all veg, one veg and egg, one meat. You might get a soup or a sauce with it. Stir-fried cucumbers have been a particularly regular occurrence. You also get some fruit, watermelon, papaya or dragonfruit. I have probably eaten more fruit and vegetables in the last week than I did in the whole of 2020.


This time is pretty much your own. There is a Skybar on the roof with great views, so I’ve gone up there to take photos a few times. I’ve mostly kept myself to myself, though. I’ve been getting on with MA work mostly, sat on my little balcony. Sometimes I will just watch Phnom Penh go by. There is a very small backstreet opposite my balcony, which leads to a school. It’s funny watching the kids come and go – especially watching some of the boys annoy the other students. There’s also a Wat and the Royal University of Fine Arts. It’s great to just watch people come and go.

When I first arrived, the early afternoon was when the drowsiness really kicked in. However, I think I’ve managed to break that cycle a little bit.


Dinner will arrive! It is very similar to lunch in size and make-up. There have been a few days which have been more Western, with pasta or potatoes. But for the most part it’s been Asian.


Again, this is my free time and once dinner has arrived, there’s nothing else for me to wait for or worry about. I might have another wonder around the hotel, or might just watch a movie and relax.

The views

The Royal Palace sits near the riverside where the Mekong and Tonle Sap meets.
The hotel is aboyt 100m from the Royal University of Fine Arts. Here, they preserve some of the unique cultural arts of Cambodia. Behind it, is the National Museum. You can also just about make out the Foreign Correspondants Club (FCC). The large white hotel in the distance, behind the museum, sits where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers meet. This is the site of the boat races and fireworks during Water Festival. Wat Ounalom, to the left, is quite important. It is sort of the Canterbury Cathedral of Cambodia.
Wat Phnom is where the name if the city comes from. You can just about see it here. It’s the white stupa- a sort of cone shaped structure. Vattannac Tower isn’t famous as such, just very distinctive with the curved front and the large balcony. You can’t see Central Market, which is close by.

There have been times when I’ve been really bored. I think it was the mix of jet lag and just being stuck inside. There are points during the day when you have no energy and your brain is a fog. But you know you have to stay up. When no one seems to be online or your internet is intermittent and can be a bit frustrating. Apart from this, I have quite enjoyed my little (but somewhat expensive) hotel break.

COVID in Cambodia

I was in Cambodia at the start of the pandemic, and I’ve been in the UK for three months now (as well as watching the two countries from afar). Therefore, I have a fairly good idea of what the response has been in both countries. I keep getting asked, “What is the COVID situation like in Cambodia?” I think the expected response is that it has been terrible, hospitals have been overrun, people are dead on the streets and there is no Cambodia for me to go back to.

This is not the case. Recently, there has been an outbreak of COVID cases in Phnom Penh. My dad told me he think the situation was about to get serious as about 300 people were found with it. I had to tell him that the figure was for the year. As of Wednesday 6th January, Cambodia has had 382 cases and 0 deaths. (The UK has had over 7000 times that amount; the US has had around 55,000 times that, for a little perspective.)

So why is it that Cambodia has not had as many cases? Or is it that COVID is actually rampant in the country and just not being reported? In the first few months I thought that might have been the case. Apparently, the British government did too, as it took until October for the country to be put on the safe corridors list. However, after a few months since we were first aware of the virus, the expected signs of an outbreak were absent. First, there was no massive uptick in funerals. Seeing as funerals are outdoors and very loud, it’d be hard to miss a pandemic. Also, there were no overwhelmed hospitals. I ended up going to various hospitals during the pandemic (mainly to visit newly born babies and their parents). They were mostly empty. The missionary community, working in vulnerable, poor areas and having networks throughout the country, heard nothing out of the ordinary. (Well, there were rumours, of course, but that didn’t reflect the actual truth.)

So, why is the situation so different in Cambodia than in the UK?

Closing schools and other public buildings

A single case of COVID-19 was discovered in Siem Reap, a tourist city towards the north of the country. Within days (or even hours), every school in the city was closed, as were cinemas, karaoke bars, sports centres and gyms. Again, after a case was discovered in Phnom Penh, all the schools in the country were closed. In this case, it was the headteacher of an international school who had just come back from a conference who had the virus. The entire school was disinfected and shut off from being accessed.

When a November community outbreak occurred, any affected business or public building (including a whole governmental department) was closed. Aeon 1, one of the largest malls in the city, was shut. Two clothing stores were closed. These have all since been reopened after being thoroughly cleaned.

Schools have been intermittently closed and reopened throughout the year. Private schools were some of the first to fully open. In order to do so, they had to pass an inspection by the Ministry of Education. The minister himself visited HOPE school and gave various recommendations. Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, essentially said that what happens in schools happens in the community.

Rapid tracing

When the few community outbreaks have occurred, the individuals involved are extensively interviewed. Their movements are traced and everyone that seemed to be in contact with them are tested. When the November community outbreak occurred, hundreds of people were tested. There were also hundreds of tests done in response to the visit by an infected Hungarian minister. As a result, the outbreaks are usually contained relatively quickly.

This was not done through a world-beating app or other system. Nor was it done on an Excel spreadsheet. It was done in person, using the tradition methods, and has been relatively effective.

Quarantining and closed borders

Once a positive case is detected, the person is immediately hospitalised. This possibly accounts for the low death rate as well. At about 1%, you could have expected that around 3 people of the 382 people infected to have died. Obviously, it’s slightly more complex than that, as many of those who had it were travelling into the country and therefore fit enough to travel. This means they were unlikely to be elderly. In many cases, people around those who tested positive, such as family or colleagues were forced to quarantine.

Cambodia also shut its borders to various countries and cities for a few months. (Surprisingly, UK and China were not on the list. This may be due to the importance of the countries in terms of trade. I’m looking at you, Marks and Spencers.) The land borders between Thailand, Vietnam and Laos were completely shut for months.

When the borders did finally open, quarantining and testing measures were extensive. You had to be tested before you flew, once you arrived and fourteen days later. After that, you had the all clear. Initially, if anyone on your plane tested positive, you had to be quarantined in a hotel. Otherwise you’d quarantine at home. However, as someone breached the at-home quarantine, everyone who arrives in the country has to quarantine in a hotel (unless you’re a dignitary).

Cultural aspects

South-East Asia is well known for its mask wearing. It’s something that has been seen as a practical part of life. You might wear a mask because the roads are dusty, or you have a cold. So, when the news stories started in January, masks were seen everywhere. This wasn’t seen as oppressive or a breach of human rights.

Ready to go!

Another important factor in Cambodia is the amount of fear of the virus. Cambodia is well aware of its limited health infrastructure, its poverty and the vulnerability of its citizens. Therefore, the fear of the virus is high. When only a few cases had been reported, people were terrified of it. One impact of this is that alcohol gel, face masks and even visors were in the shops pretty much instantly. You could get them at bookstores, stalls on the side of the street and at the entrance to malls. The amount of PPE available was actually quite extreme, especially considering that the NHS had a shortage. The UK did actually end up buying PPE from Cambodia, which wasn’t a surprise.

Businesses were very proactive too. Many shops or restaurants put perspex screens up in front of the counters, as well as implementing temperature checks for customers as they entered (which is how the community outbreak was discovered), cleaning shopping trolleys, adjusting seating. A lot of businesses chose to shut during the first months and use it as an opportunity for refurbishments and training. A lot of this was not mandated, but strongly advised. Many businesses went above and beyond what was actually required of them.

There are other cultural aspects that have perhaps prevented the spread of COVID-19. Cambodians love to be outside. Celebrations such as weddings and funerals are outside in tents. People tend to eat outside if they can. Even if they are inside, the doors and windows are probably open, providing ventilation. During the rainy season, this is less frequent. However, the outbreaks coincided, fortunately, when the rains were less common. (In fact, during the first four months of 2020 it rained about five times in total.) A lot of shopping is done in outside markets, again mitigating against the spread of the virus in closed spaces.

The cost

There has, of course, been a huge cost due to the pandemic. The economy heavily depends on tourism, especially in Siem Reap. A lot of businesses have been decimated as a result. The informal economy of tuk tuk drivers, market vendors, souvenir sellers, tour guides has also been heavily impacted. Students have missed out on months of face-to-face schooling.

The government has been criticised, of course. A lot of the measures seemed unwarranted an oppressive. In order to prevent further community transmission, names were published of those infected. Also, misinformation via Facebook and social media has been cracked-down on . A lot of human rights watchdogs and charities have been critical of these moves.

However, it could easily be argued that the most important human right is the right to life, which Cambodia has secured for its citizens through its stringent measures. The quick, decisive (albeit excessive in some people’s opinion) actions are in stark contrast to that of the UK. The UK, a year in, is finally suggesting the restriction of entry at its borders and tighter quarantine measures. That horse may have bolted long ago. Furthermore, only this week have schools been declared a vector of transmission by the British government.

It is possibly Cambodia’s vulnerability and humility that has protected it so far. There has always been a realisation that the pandemic will cause huge problems for the country in many ways, but mostly through a significant death toll if it was allowed to spread. The Cambodians are a resilient people and I am confident the country will recover. Like most Cambodians, however, I am still cautious and apprehensive about what the pandemic could mean, especially if an outbreak did occur.